If we desire humility to be an important value in our life together in community, especially in the classroom or science labs, we need to understand what we mean by humility. Within the Christian context, humility is often one of those “Christian-ese” words, like “grace” or “righteousness” or “sanctification.” We sort of know what it means, but we can be hard pressed to explain it to someone who doesn’t speak the “Christian language.” For us, for our students, and for others to deeply value the practice of humility, we need to be explicit about what humility is and is not.
Let’s start at the beginning: the Bible. Humility is a frequent theme in the New Testament, second only to the number of teachings on love (Bridges 3). Although there is an entire chapter in 1 Corinthians 13 devoted to helpful examples about love, there are no such chapters devoted to humility. Humility is encouraged within relationship with God and others; therefore, humility is important within our community. We learn from the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:1–12) and Paul’s description of the fruit of the spirit (Gal. 5:22–24) about the importance of connecting our lives of dependence on God with others through thriving relationships. In Romans 12, we are challenged to approach God with respect tinged with awe. We are also challenged to offer gratitude to God for who he is. Fulfilling these challenges results in an outcome of godly appreciation exemplified through humble relationships with others as God’s image bearers. Humility is not humiliation, shame, or embarrassment. These negative perspectives on humility are a distortion of our self-worth as God’s image bearers (Roberts 101). Given this very brief synopsis of why humility is important to God, to relationships, and to us, we understand more from a Christian perspective, yet we still require a precise definition.
As a psychologist, I can definitively state that the field of psychology is a discipline that adores definitions. Within the subfield of positive psychology—the study of contributors to human thriving—research has focused on some of the key features of humility, namely, an accurate estimation of one’s abilities and appreciation of the attributes and abilities of others (Peterson and Seligman). Therefore, the definition of humility that we land on is this: an accurate intra- and interpersonal awareness and appreciation of who we are in relation to others. If you dissect this definition, you will see that there are other relational Christian practices embedded in humility’s definition, specifically, empathy and gratitude. When we practice empathy, we take the perspective of another person. When we practice gratitude, we recognize our limitations and our indebtedness to others. Therefore, humility, encompassing empathy and gratitude, has the power to enrich our relationships with others and thereby our community. Humility could be considered a strength of a thriving community.
Now that we understand that humility is succinctly defined as an accurate self-evaluation and appreciation of others, we can consider what this means for the study and practice of science. A community that practices humility may be able to ease the all-too-common science anxiety—that is, the negative attitude with which some students approach science courses and the fear of failure that accompanies that negative attitude (Mallow 862). For example, if a classroom community is built on the practice of humility, the environment is supportive of students learning to understand their individual strengths and challenges, as well as to appreciate that God has differently enabled us for the benefit of everyone. This humble community environment should empower students to be brave rather than anxious when seeking assistance because they understand themselves better and understand who and how others could be supportive to their learning. Rachael Baker, in her article in this issue, has provided a beneficial connection to how a humble community can support the practice of study.
You may be wondering how we teach humility in our classrooms or research labs. You may also be concerned about taking time away from necessary science content. Teaching these Christian practices takes a short time for introduction of the practices, occasional reminders of their importance, and as much time as you allow at the end of the week for reflection/discussion. Of course, we begin our teaching with a definition that provides the foundational framework for our humility practice, an accurate self-evaluation, and appreciation of others. We teach the practice of humility by acknowledging that humility could be encompassed by the importance of being honest and realistic about who we are as individuals (possessing both strengths and weaknesses, accurate understandings and misconceptions) and who we are in relation to others within a community (open-mindedness that respects and honors the cognitive stance of others). We impress upon students that in order to be successful in the interdisciplinary team settings integral to scientific and class work, we must be willing to admit that we do not possess expertise in all areas and recognize that the success of the team (as well as our own success) depends upon a willingness to share knowledge and learn from others. We must be willing to practice humility.
Once we have defined what we mean by humility and how it impacts the individual and community, we issue a weekly humility challenge for students and teachers to practice.
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Julie Yonker is a professor of psychology and the director of the undergraduate public health program at Calvin University. Her research interests center on the impact of religion on physical and mental health and the importance of community relationships. Her research publications have traversed the lifespan from the prenatal period to older adulthood.
Bridges, Jerry. The Blessing of Humility: Walk within Your Calling. NavPress, 2016.
Tarrants, Thomas A. “C.S. Lewis on Pride and Humility.” C.S. Lewis Institute, July 7, 2008, https://www.cslewisinstitute.org/resources/c-s-lewis-on-pride-and-humility/.
Krumrei-Mancuso, Elizabeth J., and Steven V. Rouse. “The Development and Validation of the Comprehensive Intellectual Humility Scale.” Journal of Personality Assessment, vol. 98, no. 2, Mar. (2016): 209–21.
Mallow, Jeffry V. “A Science Anxiety Program.” American Journal of Physics, vol. 46, no. 8, Aug. (1978): 862.
Peterson, Christopher, and Martin E. P. Seligman. Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. 1st ed. American Psychological Association/Oxford University Press, 2004.
Roberts, Robert C. Spirituality and Human Emotion. Eerdmans, 1983.